GREENSBORO, N.C. — When Virginia’s players see red, they know it’s time to buckle down.
Their coach, Tony Bennett, isn’t prone to screaming. He doesn’t throw chairs or clipboards. And he’s not one to use profanity to make his point.
But Bennett’s players know when their coach is fired up.
“You see a lot of passion,” freshman Ryan Dunn said this week. “He kind of turns red.”
Dunn and the No. 13 Cavaliers (23-6) saw that passion at halftime of their road loss to North Carolina two weeks ago. They responded with a strong second half, one that they believe got them back on track, after four straight subpar outings, including back-to-back losses.
They ended the regular season with home wins over Clemson and Louisville, earning a share of the ACC regular-season championship and the No. 2 seed in this week’s conference tournament.
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“He was fired up,” senior forward Jayden Gardner said of Bennett’s halftime demeanor. “He just challenged us to stay at it. It just inspired us to keep going. He’s passionate. He’ll yell, but he yells in a way that, he’s determined.”
With a double-bye, UVa won’t play its first game in Greensboro until 7 p.m. Thursday night, when – fittingly – it will match up again with North Carolina.
The seventh-seeded Tar Heels beat the 10th-seeded Boston College 85-61 in Wednesday’s second round to advance to the quarterfinals.
Virginia won the first meeting with Carolina this season 65-58 in Charlottesville in January. But UNC All-American Armando Bacot, a former Trinity Episcopal star, left the game 1:19 in with an ankle injury.
In the rematch, UVa did a strong job defending Bacot, holding him to just 11 points and 6 rebounds. But the Tar Heels jumped out to a 42-26 halftime lead, sinking nine 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes.
“You don’t know what version you’re going to get of Carolina, which makes them very dangerous,” Gardner said. “There are games where the guards hit every 3, or it’s (Bacot) dominating the paint, or they’re off. You have to be prepared for anything.”
In the second half, Virginia held Carolina to 33.3% from the floor, including 1 for 6 beyond the arc.
Virginia’s formula was as simple as it was successful – increased effort and intensity on the defensive end, combined with some improved shot making offensively.
“I think guys just competed,” senior point guard Kihei Clark said. “The level of play that we played at to try to fight back into the game, we didn’t hang our heads. We fought back every way. We were physical. Defensively, I think we picked up the pressure a little bit. I think there were flashes of good basketball there and we’ll take that and try to carry on forward.”
That starts in Greensboro. Virginia has won six regular-season titles in the past 10 years but hasn’t won an ACC tournament crown since 2018.
Wednesday night, the Tar Heels were absolutely on fire from outside, hitting seven first-half 3-pointers on their way to the blowout win.
It looked an awful lot like the way they came out against UVa. Unlike the Cavaliers, Boston College didn’t bounce back in the second half, setting up the game between Virginia and UNC, a rematch of last year’s ACC quarterfinal, won by the Heels.
UVa is 0-6 all-time playing against North Carolina in the ACC tournament in Greensboro.
“The atmosphere will be good,” Gardner said. “It’ll just depend on how many North Carolina fans can get in the building. But usually Virginia fans plus Duke fans will definitely be against North Carolina, so that’s to our advantage.”
Mike Barber (804) 649-6546
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